Wednesday, October 22, 2008
On Secret Knowledge

I think this is likely going to be the first of several posts on this subject -- I know I've got more to say about it than I can coherently fit into one short post, and even in sections it might not be entirely coherent. But I'm really hoping that people will speak up in response. I'm not aiming for any particular conclusion, and I'm not looking for the answer to any concrete question. It's just a sort of floating conceptual cloud I've found myself in from time to time over the last year or two, and I'd like to chew on it for a while if anyone else is game.

When I was young -- 12, 13, in that neighborhood -- I got a book that kept me occupied for several years: High Weirdness By Mail. I initially got it for various reasons, but I was fascinated by it for just one -- it told me about stuff no other kids my age knew about. Thus, as a newly-minted teenager, and well before the internet was accessible to anyone but university folks and determined enthusiasts, I was learning about William S. Burroughs, the Principia Discordia, the Children of God, the space brothers, and lots of other less pleasant delusions. None of this stuff was so much as whispered in daily life when I was coming up -- unless you somehow wormed your way into some urban underground somewhere, where I was far too timid to venture -- so that book became my thin, shining, clammy link to everything I wasn't supposed to know about.

Being a kid, and a slightly gullible one at that, I bought into some of the gentler stuff more than I wish I had. But fuck it, that's what kids do, and as a grown-up skeptic it clearly didn't do me too much harm. I even expect the eventual disillusionment inoculated me against a lot of the crazy shit I see people lapping up every day at my job. And while my peers were reading Sweet Valley High and listening to Guns N' Roses, I was digging in to Burroughs and Kafka, and listening to Talking Heads and Negativland. I didn't fit in anyway -- ungainly, unstylish, and perpetually the new kid for seven years -- so it was just as easy to create my own mobile youth culture, built on whatever random elements I could scrape together from the outside world. I wasn't the only kid on earth to have done it, but I was the only one I knew of for a long time.

Now, however, this stuff is all just assumed. If I look for differences between my generation and those coming up more recently, the one I perpetually land on is that everything that was illicit and hard to acquire back then is now easily accessible. If I wanted a Talking Heads CD when I was fourteen or fifteen, I had to wait until we took a trip to a city with a decent record store, and then hope that they had one in stock. Alternately, I could send off (by mail) for a catalog, wait a few weeks for it to arrive, and mail-order the damn thing. It wasn't easy for a kid in rural Arkansas to expose themselves to much more than base culture in the early 90s, much less anything remotely fringe-y. Now a brief visit to the iTunes store or the Pirate Bay will net me then entire catalog of the fringy-est, most obscure bands in minutes, at most. Any dumbass teenager can go digging around in any murky cultural backwater at the faintest whisper of an impulse. Stormfront? Smart drugs? Whatever weird shit Japanese kids are into these days? You probably don't even have to be able to spell it to get access. It's all just there.

And we won't even get into the porn situation. When I was a youth, we had to work to get our hands on real pornography. These days, one simple link can end with you watching Two Girls, One Cup.

This isn't intended to be some kind of "get off my lawn" thing -- I think by and large this is a very positive development. A lot of people -- well, most, really -- aren't going to make much good use of it, but the ones who do will have an easier time getting through their own ungainly adolescences than I did. But nothing is obscure anymore, according to the formal meaning of the word. Nothing is hard to find. I'm not sure if there's any such thing as an underground anymore, or anything left on the periphery on society. Information has become one all-encompassing blob, Katamari Damacy-style.

But here's the thing: people love, and maybe even need, to have access to "secret knowledge." This is something I've become much more aware of by doing my current job -- people desperately want to know something that nobody else knows, or to find some knowledge that was previously denied them. Different people look for different things -- how to attract the people they desire, how to become rich, how to manipulate others, how to avoid being manipulated, how to exert power, how to finally be happy. The Secret is the most obvious example (and the most all-purpose), but I'd posit that fully half our inventory is devoted to "secret" solutions to the universal problems involved in being human. Kevin fucking Trudeau has gotten filthy stinking rich by offering questionable advice to the gullible specifically as forbidden, secret information. And David Icke, as laughable as he is, still has plenty of avid, if furtive, readers. More than you would ever guess if you didn't see them hunched over his books in the "speculation" section.

And the whole concept is further muddled to my mind by questions about what constitutes this "secret" knowledge. Absurd conspiracy theories, absolutely; the rules for attracting a husband, sure. But what about quantum physics? Sure, the information is fairly readily available, but beyond the most superficial level it becomes arcane in the extreme. How does string theory fit into the secret knowledge continuum? I know more about evolutionary biology than the average citizen, enough to know what Hox genes are and a little bit about how they're expressed in an organism. But I certainly don't know enough to understand how the proteins they encode controlled my fetal development, so that I find myself sitting here with four limbs rather than six. I could, if I were determined, learn. It's not being kept from me. But I don't know, and if I am honest, I probably won't bother to dig that deeply into the subject -- or if I do, then I probably won't ever put the effort into attempting to understand quantum physics. And that really is information that very few people possess.

Which knowledge is more "secret": intelligent design, or the best current theories about abiogenesis?

I suppose this is all my way of trying to sort out what information is worth seeking, and what's not, and how I make the distinction between the two. And I know the answer to that, really -- reason, and her daughter science, can be relied upon to separate truth from bullshit eventually. But then, the conspiracy theorist mutters, that's exactly what they want me to think.
10:44 PM ::
Amy :: permalink